Sometimes what does not happen is the real news
IT IS the middle of August, traditionally the height of the Mediterranean’s migrant-trafficking season. Yet thousands of dehydrated Africans and Asians are not arriving on the shores of the Canary Islands, southern Spain, Sicily and other Italian islands.
True, a handful are coming. On August 8th 40 woebegone North Africans were found to have increased the population of the Italian islet of Linosa by almost 10%. A Catholic charity, Caritas, claimed that seaborne migration in the central Mediterranean was picking up. But figures from the European Union’s border-security agency, Frontex, show that a mere 150 people reached Italy and Malta in the first quarter of this year, compared with 5,200 in the same period of 2009. Irregular migration to the Canary Islands, which was taking in tens of thousands of Africans a few years ago, had almost ground to a halt. In the first three months of 2010, just five people came ashore there. Stories of seaborne migration used to roil the politics of southern Europe regularly. Why not now? And where have all the migrants gone?
Part of the answer is that southern European governments have applied diplomacy (and cash) to the problem. In Spain, successive administrations have made deals with countries in north-west Africa that have pushed the migrants’ available ports of departure southward, making the journey to the Canaries even more dangerous and expensive. More controversially, Silvio Berlusconi’s government in Italy reached an understanding with the Libyans which allows Italian patrols to return intercepted migrants to the tender mercies of Colonel Qaddafi’s police before they get a chance to ask for asylum.
The flow into Europe is not, however, determined solely by the effectiveness of measures taken to limit it. It is also influenced by the number of those willing to risk their lives and savings in an attempt to breach the frontiers of the EU. That is where things get more complicated—and more illuminating.
Politicians, particularly those most alarmed by immigration, often speak of it as if it were a homogenous phenomenon, in which migrants leave their homelands for similar reasons. In fact, the impulses that drive them vary. The categories may sometimes overlap, yet there is a real difference between an economic migrant seeking a better life and a political migrant hoping for refuge from war or persecution. They are different sorts of voyagers and respond to different influences.
Of those trying to get into Italy across the Mediterranean, a high proportion were always political refugees. In the peak year of 2008, when 36,000 came ashore, three quarters asked for humanitarian protection. Almost half the requests were granted.
The evidence suggests that, in response to the deal between Mr Berlusconi and Colonel Qaddafi, some who would otherwise have been trying to enter Italy are now finding their way into Europe farther east (and more often by land than by sea). According to Frontex, four out of five would-be immigrants detained in the EU in the first three months of 2010 were stopped in Greece. But the total number of detected entries there was still among the lowest since the agency began keeping count in early 2008.
Two factors seem to be at work. The flow of asylum-seekers depends in part on the level of instability in the more troubled areas of the world. Since Somalia, Iraq and the Palestinian territories have all known worse years than 2009, it may be that Italy’s deal with Libya happened to come into force just as the volume of migrants reaching the North African coast was beginning to dip anyway.
The other factor is Europe’s economic downturn, the effects of which can be seen more starkly at the other end of the Mediterranean. Migrants to Spain traditionally moved in search of economic opportunities, so it was to be expected that their numbers would decline as jobs for irregular migrants dried up. Spain’s harsh economic crisis may even be reversing the direction of migration. The number of foreign residents fell in the second quarter of this year by 2%. The biggest decrease was among Latin Americans, whose numbers shrank by 100,000.
That points to another area of confusion, or even downright mendacity. Spain’s Ecuadoreans and Colombians did not arrive on rickety fishing boats. Nor did most of Italy’s Filipinos and Moldovans. Some flew in on tourist visas and overstayed. Others came by land. Sea-borne migration makes for dramatic television. But it does not account for the majority of arrivals.
A poster for Italy’s Northern League, one of whose senior figures is the country’s interior minister, shows a boat packed with black and brown faces and the boast “We Stopped the Invasion”. But that is untrue. As Caritas noted this week, even in 2008, when Mediterranean crossings were at their height, entries by sea into Italy anyway made up only a fifth of the estimated total. And the “invasion” may not have been stopped, or at least not for good. America’s withdrawal from Iraq, economic recovery in Europe, and any number of other influences could all one day push up again the number of people willing to chance their arm.
But if Europe’s economy does boom and tens of thousands of people do manage to get in, will European governments really care? Perhaps the most important misrepresentation in the whole business is that they will. National governments seem to lurch from complacency to hostility depending on the state of the economy, and opinion polls. At the European level, EU member states have never agreed to measures to help out tiny countries that act as points of entry, such as Malta. But then Europe needs immigrants to counteract the impact on economic growth of its low birth rate and to do the dirty work its own citizens disdain. This summer, Catalonia’s employment agency offered jobs picking fruit to 7,800 unemployed people. Less than 1,700 accepted. Many of those were thought to be of non-Spanish origin.